Under strict immigration policy introduced in 2013, the Australian government has intercepted and forcibly transferred around 2500 refugees and asylum-seekers to offshore processing facilities on Nauru and Manus. Australia’s “Stop the Boats” policy prohibits the resettlement of asylum-seekers who arrive on their shores by boat. According to the Asylum Seeker Resource Center (ASRC) there are currently over 1,100 asylum-seekers being held on the small Pacific island of Nauru, including 117 children, 40 of which were born in detention.
In recent weeks, the health and well-being of asylum-seeking children has deteriorated as a result of prolonged exposure to severe trauma and abuse. There are reports of attempted suicide, self-immolation, self-harm and depression among children detained on Nauru. Sources say there is a mental health crisis with an “uncontrollable contagion” of children committing self-harm. In response to severe trauma, several children have been diagnosed with Traumatic Withdrawal Syndrome (also known as “resignation syndrome”). This is a rare psychiatric disorder, in which children refuse food and fluids and withdraw from interaction and communication. The ASRC estimates at least 30 children on Nauru are suffering from “resignation syndrome.” This condition can be fatal without treatment.
Medical professionals on the island are overwhelmed and lack adequate facilities to treat the succession of critically ill children. Doctors are referring children to be transferred to mainland Australia to receive urgent medical attention. However, only the most critical cases are being addressed, with few children being transferred for treatment due to judicial barriers. Court applications must be conceded by the government or ordered by judges before children are transferred. Immigration Minister Peter Dutton has ignored medical advice and repeatedly denied asylum-seekers access to healthcare in Australia.
Court orders have only permitted the transfer of 12 children to Australia for urgent treatment so far, including a 17-year old girl in critical condition diagnosed with “resignation syndrome.” A 12-year old boy was airlifted after he refused food and fluids for 20 days. This came four days after doctors recommended his urgent evacuation. The Australian government delayed his transfer, despite the imminent risk of death. Additionally, a girl who attempted to set herself on fire has yet to be transferred.
The social justice law firm, Maurice Blackburn, is involved with several referral cases. The head of the firm, Jennifer Kanis, believes the Australian government has a duty to protect and care for asylum seekers. She expressed her concern, “It’s devastating… that we have to take legal action to get proper medical care for these kids. The government is more concerned with their policy of keeping this cohort of people seeking asylum off Australia than they are with their health.”
Australia is legally obligated to protect asylum-seekers. The United Nations Refugee Convention states anyone can legally arrive in Australia, by boat or other modes of transport; they are legally entitled to ask for protection. They can be resettled once their claim for refugee status is investigated and confirmed. However, since 1992, Australia has defied international laws. In opposition, asylum seekers who arrive by boat are diverted and detained. The government refuses to accept responsibility for them which is a violation of the refugee convention, as well as a breach of human rights.
The Australian government defends its tight border protection policies, which they believe are necessary to prevent deaths at sea by people smugglers. The policy was implemented as a deterrent. The government resists the resettlement of asylum-seekers from Nauru, arguing that it would encourage the arrival of more boats crossing from Indonesia, resulting in people drowning. Supporters argue that the policy has been effective in reducing the number of boat arrivals. However, it has had an immense physical and mental impact on the people contained in detention facilities, making children especially vulnerable. This is reiterated by World Vision Australia’s chief executive, Claire Rogers, who said, “These children are caught between a desire to stop deaths at sea, which we absolutely don’t want to see an increase in, but there’s no justification for locking children up to create that outcome, that’s not the solution.”
Repeated offers to resettle 150 asylum-seekers from Nauru and Manus have been made by New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. These offers have been rejected by the Australian government, with stark warnings from Dutton about the “consequences such an arrangement would have on New Zealand’s trade relations with Australia.”
Advocates and opposition politicians are campaigning to free children from forced detention with more than 30 non-governmental organizations, including Amnesty International demanding the government release the children. A coalition of Australian humanitarian and human rights organizations have advocated and set a deadline for the government to resettle all asylum seekers and refugees in Australia or a safe developing country by Universal Children’s Day on November 20. The government needs to end offshore processing and ensure the human rights of refugees are protected.
Australia may be held accountable by New Zealand and other neighbouring Pacific nations when they meet at the Pacific Islands Forum, which takes place in Nauru from 3rd-6th September. Amnesty International has called on the forum to place Australia’s offshore processing scheme at the top of the agenda.